”This film has been modified from its original version,” states the disclaimer that begins many a videocassette. ”It has been formatted to fit your TV.” Why stop there? Some movies would benefit from another warning: ”This film needs modifying. Keep a finger on the fast-forward button.” Two egregious cases in point: Meet Joe Black, Martin Brest’s three-hour remake of 1934’s unassuming Death Takes a Holiday, and the 174-minute Beloved, Jonathan Demme’s solemn adaptation of Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel. Purists may insist on watching from beginning to end, but for the curious or overbooked, here are the can’t-miss scenes.
Meet Joe Black
00:11* Brad Pitt appears as a glib lawyer whose toned bod will be borrowed by Death himself. Enjoy the cocky grin; it’s soon replaced by a somnambulistic stare.
00:22 Our blond boy is hit by not one but two speeding cars in a truly startling shot computer-graphics fans will savor.
00:28 The plot kicks in as Death offers to prolong the life of ailing tycoon Anthony Hopkins (typically assured and understated) in exchange for a tour of earth’s quotidian wonders.
00:43 First reference to peanut butter, with which Death becomes unaccountably obsessed; in a product-placement coup, three brands are named in roughly 10 seconds.
01:02 In a surreal scene with a West Indian who sees him for the spirit he is, Brad adds a Caribbean patois to his unsteady repertoire of accents.
01:44 Pitt’s sex scene with the tycoon’s daughter (Claire Forlani) bucks convention by letting her be the aggressor, and ends with a comparison of lovemaking and peanut butter. (Death Takes a Holiday would have ended 25 minutes ago.)
02:30 The skippable corporate-takeover subplot, in which Hopkins’ right-hand man attempts to gain control of the company, comes to a climax. Death poses as an IRS agent (death and taxes, don’tcha know) in a scene so over-the-top ludicrous it’s refreshing.
02:40 Hopkins invests his farewell scene with far more dignity than it deserves.
00:01* We join a poltergeist-related disturbance already in progress: screams, flying objects, a dog with one eye torn from its socket. Not since Lethal Weapon 2 (also with Danny Glover) kicked off mid-car chase has a movie wasted so little time grabbing you by the throat.
00:09 Itinerant worker Paul D (Glover) cautiously enters the home of former slave Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), which looks more like the portal to hell. Who expected an Oprah movie to be this creepy?
00:30 The plot kicks into gear, as the mysterious title character (Thandie Newton) emerges from a swamp, covered with crawling insects, seeking Sethe’s house and a jar of Jif…wait, wrong movie.
00:36 Beloved speaks for the first time, her rasp sounding remarkably like E.T.’s.
01:03 Beloved and Sethe’s headstrong daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) bond, with Denver quizzing her new sister about her past and receiving disturbingly vague replies. This tender scene demonstrates why, in a just world, both Newton and Elise would have vied for Best Supporting Actress a few weeks ago.
01:49 Sethe’s horrible secret is revealed in one of many yellow-tinted flashbacks. This should be the climax; in fact, there’s more than an hour to go.
01:56 Beloved’s horrible secret is revealed (though those who watch the entire movie will have guessed it long before). Still about an hour to go.
02:03 Condensing feverishly, Demme trots out the old changing-seasons montage. What, no rapidly flipping calendar pages, Jonathan?
02:26 A memorably freaky scene that finds a ladies’ auxiliary group chanting prayers at a naked, pregnant, deranged Beloved. Cue the half-hour-long denouement.
Joe Black: C